Magna Carta and Fulk FitzWarin

This week it’s the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215 by King John. Magna Carta is the most famous of a series of agreements between kings and barons which limited the power of the kings. It includes things that are still important today, such as taxation needing the consent of the people; accused criminals being judged by their equals; forced marriage being wrong; and beer and wine being sold in fixed measures.

Magna Carta was sealed by King John using his great seal, which had a picture of the king on his throne on the front, and armed and on his war-horse on the reverse.

Great seal of King John (reverse)
Great seal of King John (reverse) Source: Ancient Armour and Weapons in Europe by John Hewitt, 1855

The reverse of John’s seal (pictured) is very like a seal matrix recently found in Little Bedwyn, Wiltshire (BERK-FDCFD2).

The Little Bedwyn matrix also has a mounted warrior and, although only half of the object survives, he can be identified from the inscription and from his shields of arms as Fulk FitzWarin III. Fulk was one of King John’s barons, and a famous legal case involving him and John led to one of Magna Carta’s most famous clauses.

Medieval seal matrix
BERK-FDCFD2: Medieval seal matrix of Fulk Fitzwarin III. Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council. Licence: CC-BY.

Clause 40 is one of the shortest but most important: To no-one will we sell, to no-one will we deny or delay, right or justice. Before this, ‘justice’ was often simply what the king thought it was, and as King John had expensive tastes he could be persuaded one way of the other by who was willing to pay him the most money.

The case involving Fulk FitzWarin is complicated, and involves competing barons trying to pay John larger and larger amounts of money to hold Whittington Castle on the Welsh border in Shropshire. Although normally this kind of dispute would be settled by deciding who had the legal right to the castle, John’s decision was clearly coloured by who could pay the most, even though one of the barons involved was actually Welsh.

Fulk ended up in open rebellion against John, with a group of border knights. They had to take refuge in Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire, not far from the findspot of the seal matrix. Fulk is not recorded as being among the 25 barons who forced John to accept Magna Carta, but he did become very famous as the hero of the French romance Fouke le Fitz Waryn, a heroic tale of Fulk as a wronged outlaw in the reign of King John that bears a strong resemblance to the later tale of Robin Hood.